Improve Your Illustrating Workflow By Combining Adobe Illustrator & Flash
Have you ever spent countless hours in Adobe Illustrator trying to draw graphics, but just can't seem to get anything looking the way you pictured it? What about taking 30+ steps to just to create a shape that didn't seem like it should be all that hard to do? As great as Illustrator is, over the years I've recognized it has shortcomings when it comes to illustrating, the exact purpose it was created 26 years ago to do.
I love Illustrator, and use it daily, but I can't help but often find it time-consuming and counter-intuitive to a free and/or experimental approach that many artists like to use. How am I supposed to know the number of anchor points and locations of every bezier curve handle of each shape in my project before I make them? If you create illustrations, icons, logos, packaging, t-shirt designs, advertisements, or any other piece that includes vector graphics, then I'm about to blow your mind.
I wasted a lot of time starting over in Illustrator whenever things didn't quite look the way I had imagined. So, how did I improve my workflow and get back to just creating? I found that while Illustrator's environment was precise and super functional, it didn't lend itself well to working quickly and loosely, so I needed an environment that was a bit more, I don't know, primitive. And, I knew just the place......wait for it......Adobe Flash.
Flash, Adobe's animation and rich media offering, is mostly known as a software package for creating things like games, banner advertisement, video players, and similar content for use on the web. But even though it's used for some pretty advanced purposes today, it was originally built as a 2-D vector animating platform, and I found its crudely simple and basic drawing tools to be a perfect fit.
As I explain my vector workflow to you, I'm going to use examples from a t-shirt design (see image below) that I created for my other love, the martial arts school I train at (shameless plug).
Step 1: Sketch your idea out first
Of course, this step is optional, but I implore you not to overlook it. By sketching out any ideas you have in your head onto paper, you can get right down to it once you transfer over to the digital world. Any idea is worth exploring here, because you can determine if some ideas you have just aren't good ideas anymore. You don't have to be exact with your sketches, it's more of a frame of reference so that you aren't on your computer working aimlessly from the start. And in some cases, like this one, you can even "trace" over your sketch and use it as a helpful on-screen guide. Paper and pencil will never go out of style, but in this case, I sketched my idea first on my iPad in Adobe Ideas. Ideas is a drawing app for use on mobile devices, but a really cool feature is that anything you draw can easily be sent to cloud storage and downloaded to your computer, where you can then import it into any of Adobe's programs.
Step 2: Flesh out your idea in Flash
First things first, let's briefly go over the drawing mechanics in Flash. As I said earlier, Flash's drawing tools are rather primitive, and lack any kind of advanced functionality. That's ok, because we don't need that at this stage. Let's get started:
In Flash, you can erase any part of a shape simply by highlighting any portion of it with your mouse, and then pressing Delete. Look how easy that is in the image below. If you needed to make that same object in Illustrator, you could create a second shape that overlaps the first and then use the Pathfinder palette to clip it, or maybe use the Pen tool to add and remove certain anchor points, and then the Direct Selection tool to move each anchor point where you need it to be. Either way you slice it, quickly deleting part of any shape is extremely easy in Flash.
Making curved lines:
Let's say you wanted to curve one side of a square. In Flash, all you need to do is hover your mouse over that side. Notice how the mouse cursor changes to show a little curved line? All you need to do now is to click and drag, and the line will curve with your mouse. In Illustrator, you would need to use the Convert Anchor Point tool to give each of the two points on that side a bezier curve, and then the Direct Selection tool to adjust each curve handle around until things look right. Way too time consuming, especially if you need to make a bunch of curves. Extreme time saver here.
Adding anchor points:
Look at the same basic square we've been working with. You know how to curve a side of a shape now. But, what if you want to add an anchor point somewhere along that side? Simply hover your mouse over the side again until you see the curved icon like above. Before you click, hold down the ALT/OPTION key on your keyboard and you'll notice the mouse icon turns from a curved line to a pointed line. Now, when you click your mouse and drag, you'll see a new anchor point that you can drag wherever you like. You can also adjust any anchor point by simply hovering your mouse over it and clicking/dragging. Using Illustrator, you'd need to use the Pen tool's Add Anchor Point sub-tool, and then the Direct Selection tool to adjust the new point to where you want it. Imagine you needed to make a star out of the square above. With Flash, you could do that in about 20 seconds; with Illustrator, it would take you at least 2 minutes.
Drawing in Flash:
Here, I've imported my sketch in Flash and have the layer locked, so that I can use it as a guide while I start creating shapes on layers above it. Using the techniques I "illustrated" (see what I did there?) above, I simply draw a rectangle and repeatedly adjust it. Similar to how a sculptor molds clay, think of this as molding a rectangle (or any other object) into another shape. Look how I completed the arm in the image below. You simply mold your shape as you go. You can never make a wrong move, since you can always undo or mold it back the other way. I've found the easiest way is to make a blocky shape in similar to what I need, and then smoothing out and getting more detailed from there. Once I complete each section, I just start adding more objects and molding them to my liking.
Step 3: Move the near-finished artwork to Illustrator
Once you're finished in Flash, you can import the vector artwork to Illustrator. In Flash, go to the File menu, and then Export > Export Image... That will bring up a save window where you can save your file in a number of formats. What we're looking for here is "Adobe FXG." FXG is a cross-application, XML-based file format similar to SVG (scalable vector graphic) that is used by Adobe's software to import/export vector artwork from one application to another. Once you have your file saved, open up Illustrator and open it up using File > Open just like you would with any file.
Now that your artwork is in Illustrator, you can clean it up a bit in a more feature-rich environment. Illustrator handles things like text, strokes, transparencies, colors, and gradients much better than Flash (not to mention has a boatload of more options and controls for each), as well as has effects and filters that you can add now as well, so I always wait to include those types of things until now. In this particular graphic, I added some half-tone shadows under my characters. In screen printing, gradients are hard to pull off, so t-shirt designers use half-tones to simulate a shadow or gradient by gradually changing the shape of small dots to allow more/less color behind it to show through.
Hopefully, by now you have a finished piece of vector artwork for your project, and you've done it in a fraction of the time it would take you to have created it solely in Illustrator. Obviously, there are times when one method will work better than another, but once you are familiar with this workflow, you'll be able to work more efficiently.
In conclusion, through my own frustrations and trial-and-error I've found a workflow that is solid gold for me when it comes to creating vector objects. To my knowledge, I've never heard of anybody else using this sort of workflow before, but it works very well for me. By using Flash to do most of your drawing grunt work, you're able to work in a more loose and experimental manner when you need to. This is more intuitive to many designers that also enjoy working with physical materials like pencil, paint, clay, etc. since you're not restricted to creating your art in a precisely controlled environment. If you've liked this blog post or have any questions, send us a Tweet and let us know! Now, get back to work and start illustrating. Just not in Illustrator.
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@fredgatesdesign There is a param for "link" which is what you need. You can actually do a print_r on the result to see all available data.